To this day I remain haunted by a story about a woman who lost her eyesight to a microscopic organism that proliferated beneath her contact lenses. This cautionary tale went public nearly five years ago, and I still remember scouring the reports to find out what happened. Luckily for me, a responsible contact-lens wearer, the cause was right there in plain sight (sorry): she didn’t remove her disposable lenses for six months, creating the perfect conditions for amoeba to render her blind.

“Whew,” I thought then, and still do now, because I remove my lenses daily, thereby protecting myself from a similar fate. I also floss every night and exercise regularly, so I’m counting on gingival and cardiac health for the rest of my life.

Meanwhile, a few months ago a dead-animal smell permeated the kitchen I clean religiously because a rat had fallen from the attic and gotten cooked in the stove vent. Maggots dropped from the vent onto my sparkling countertop as I was cooking dinner.

A few days later, I learned that a friend with whom I shared my childhood and who has eaten organically her entire adult life (she runs a healthy-cooking blog!) was just diagnosed with lymphoma and will shortly undergo chemo.

Whitney Houston sang that it wasn’t right, but it was okay. My version could go, “I may be right, but I’m not okay.” I keep a lot of the rules, but they won’t save me from death or any of its antecedents. And that’s saying nothing of all the rules I do break, and the associated shame that accompanies that record, because the B-side to my Perfect Maintenance list always lurks—the specters of my imperfect record: habitually bumping cars without leaving a note, having my flailing kid noticed first by another adult in the pool, consuming an inappropriate amount of sugar, not always choosing the right number of glasses of wine to drink.

There is an easy judgment that comes ride-or-die with cheap grace: this willingness to judge others who have a predisposition to bad habits that don’t match my own. These quick and ready critiques go tandem with the idea that sin is just something that I can, in the words of Bob Newhart, STOP, as though Jesus died for a list of things I can knock out with a few well-planned New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve lived at various places scattered over the political spectrum and, in a few years, will no doubt look back with a smirk at my persuasions today. But I’d like to think that my early years of extremism (thank you, Facebook memories, for all the facepalm moments) have been tempered by experience (and something greater) into a fairer, more reasonable point of view. (Except when it comes to extremists, of course, of the ilk I used to represent. It’s complicated.) Opinions on all sides sound more strident than ever thanks to the megaphone gifted each of us by access to social media where comments sections feel like Old Testament battlegrounds, devoid of grace. Recent controversies have either condemned or exonerated everyone from Serena Williams (and all women) to Brett Kavanaugh (and all men). Our responses, whether typed and posted or just silently held, are born of experience, and I, like you, can only speak to mine.

Sara Wong for NPR – “The Pattern Problem,” Invisibilia

A recent episode of the podcast Invisibilia asked the question, “Are we destined to repeat our patterns or do we generally stray in surprising directions?” The hosts told several stories meant to investigate whether there is “a place outside of patterns,” and they came to varying conclusions based on the subject matter and people involved. Again, I can only speak from my own experience, but my own ever-ready pattern of righteous judgment was only ever and truly displaced by grace.

Here’s the thing: it’s not that I didn’t have evidence to back up my opinions. It’s not that I was even wrong all the time. There is recidivism among criminals. Welfare fraud does occur. There are streets that women would be wise not to walk down at night. And Serena could have better kept her cool at a few of her matches. But these points weren’t the most important part of their accompanying stories. These points, actually, prevented acknowledgment of a story in the first place. These points were weapons wielded in arguments meant to boost my own profile and strengthen my own image, instead of focusing on the One in whose image I, and everyone else, is made.

One can be objectively correct without being okay, and I have been not okay for much of my life. I have lived within a “mercy BUT” paradigm rather than a “BUT mercy” narrative. It’s easy to be right when you see a subject matter rather than a story.

It would be so much easier to just keep being right all the time.

My Twitter feed, like me, is a bit all over the place, which can result in my receiving some mixed messages. Recently I read two articles in succession and was struck by their foiling of each other. The first has a title reading more like a command followed by text that features phrasing like “moral bank account,” equating a person with the sum of their good deeds minus their bad ones. Math, basically. The secondlonger, exhaustive, and not to mention complicated and layered—rocked me to my core. Dare I say it changed me. I know which one I’ll remember longer.

There can be a gulf between being loving and being right, and one often occurs at the expense of the other.

Back when I was always right and ready with a judgment, it was easy to maintain the rules because I chose the ones I was good at. And when I failed at something? Well, the anger and shame that accompanied that failure eventually became so all-consuming they began to define me. They took me down a path defined by so much rebellion and negated rule-keeping that the only thing to save me had to come from outside myself—outside my easy judgment, outside my record, outside a comments section. Forgiveness changed me. Someone looking at me and, instead of “I love you BUT,” saying “BUT I love you” (h/t Curt Benham and Jesus). Someone who turned my life from a set of bullet points into a story. Someone who won’t let me forget the inconvenient truths that we are all one, and ultimately we are all the same: in need of someone outside ourselves. Or as it’s put in The Mockingbird Devotional, “To accept the other in Christ is to tell another person that we are just as shocked that God would welcome us.”

Last week I was in the middle of an existential crisis, i.e. taking my kids shopping, and things were not going well. Whining and tears abounded on all fronts. At that moment, the clerk at a shop asked if I needed a bag, and I accepted gratefully as I had forgotten to bring one. She begrudgingly handed it over, reminding me that they kill the environment and looking at me as though I had personally murdered one thousand whales while my children pulled at me and I considered having a breakdown right there. (Wouldn’t be the first time.) She was right, of course. Those bags are no good for the oceans or anyone else. But in that moment, her judgment didn’t change me. Guilt never ultimately changes us. It was salt water to a woman dying of thirst.

Later that night, after what I had felt was a shitty day of parenting and life in general, I lay beside my boys while they began to drift off to sleep. The little one nestled into my side despite my poor record that day. The big one whispered, “Mommy? You’re the best.” I bit my lip to keep from laughing/crying at the ridiculous untruth he’d just uttered, even as its abundance of true mercy and lack of judgment meant everything, because, against all odds, that’s what he sees when he looks at me. And that kind of gaze is the one that changes me.